Nick Haas is sitting on a hotel banquet chair in the middle of Fresno Soap Company's 50-seat black box theater, laying out the basic rules for improvisational comedy.
He's yet to be funny.
"There are no denials," Haas tells the half dozen would-be improv-ers taking his Level 2: Intermediate Improvisation Class. "Don't deny the facts."
Haas is a founding member of the local improv group Blimprov, which is presenting the six-week course in conjunction with the Central Valley Comedy Theatre as a means of garnering respect for, and developing the art of improvisational theater.
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A Level 1 class will start in October.
The facts Haas refers to are those of the improvised scene, however they may arise. During the three-hour class — which I audited last Saturday for the sake of this column — the students explore ways to get those facts out and then mine them for any comedic value.
Class begins with some standard improv warm-ups, including a game of "Zip, Zap, Zoom," where participants stand in a circle and actively wait to receive a sound and a physical action that must immediately be passed on with a follow-up sound and action.
If you've never played, it's a mind-bender that tests your ability to be in the moment, regardless of the chaos around you (in this case a circle of people slapping hands and chanting "zip, zap, zoom, zip, zap, zoom").
The students then run through several improvised games — low-level versions of what Blimprov does in its live shows.
In between, Haas goes into lecture mode.
He breaks down primary and secondary points of view. A three-minute skit where students portray riders on a city bus gets dissected for a full half hour, with Haas pulling nuances from each character that the actor themselves may never have intended.
"We all draw from our own associations," he says.
It's clear you can't teach funny
One of Haas' first rules is don't try to be funny.
Instead, students are taught to be free and open in their scenes — in other words, "to react truthfully to imaginary situations," which is Haas' definition of acting. In doing so, they learn to spot and build upon the comedic opportunities as they naturally arise.
There is a life lesson in all of this.
I get it during the warm-ups, waiting in the circle for my turn to catch the "zip" and return a "zap."
My mind races.
I'm going to screw this up.
I'm going to say "zip" instead of "zap" or snap my fingers instead of slapping my hands. I'm going to look silly in front of these nice strangers. As the pace picks up, I feel anxious, outside of my comfort zone.
I think, "Don't let it come to me."
I think, "I don't wanna play this game. I don't wanna."
Then, I breathe, let go and get in the moment.
Someone else messes up and the game ends, making the whole circle laugh.
There are no denials in improv.
"If you 'don't wanna,' I don't wanna watch the scene," Haas says.
You can learn more about Blimprov and find its schedule of classes at www.blimprov.com.